Bits to Atoms (and Atoms to Bits)

In MIT's Fab Lab, Neil Gershenfeld has already come up with $1 Internet nodes. Now he's looking toward fungible servers and personal fabrication.

Neil Gershenfeld says we're on the threshold of the third digital revolution, one in which matter and information merge. He has kicked off the revolution in a fabrication laboratory, dubbed the Fab Lab, at MIT, where he's the director of the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). In the Fab Lab, students design and manufacture their own products using inexpensive fabrication and electronics tools driven by open-source software and programs written by MIT researchers. Other "fab labs" based on these principles are spreading around the world, especially in less-developed countries. Gershenfeld, who has laid out the precepts of personal fabrication in his book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication (The Perseus Books Group, 2005), recently explained the mission of the CBA to Computerworld's Gary Anthes.

Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms
Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms

What do you mean when you say we are entering the third digital revolution? Historically, we have had two very distinct and important phases: communications and computing. What I'm referring to is fabrication, which is still on the analog side. The real state of the art in fabrication is in the body, in the ribosome. It's essentially a molecular computer; it runs a program. It doesn't control the tool—it is the tool. And the output isn't arranging bits—it's arranging atoms. But it has all the properties that Claude Shannon and John von Neumann [defined] for communications and computation.

One of the CBA's "grand challenges" is to create "it from bit." What does that mean? The research we are doing is looking at how you go, quite literally, from bits to atoms and from atoms to bits. If you have a description, how do you turn it into a thing, and if you have a thing, how do you turn it into a description? What are emerging are principles for how to do exactly that.



Neil Gershenfeld

Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms

MIT’s fabrication laboratory, also known as the Fab Lab

He has kicked off a revolution in digital fabrication.

Is this a new branch of computer science? In many ways, computer science is one of the worst things to happen to either computing or science. The canon of computer science that's currently taught prematurely froze a model of computation based on 1950s technology. Nature is a much more powerful computer than traditional models of computation consider. One of the dramatic examples is quantum computing, but there are many other ways nature can compute that are poorly captured in conventional models of computation.

Can you give an example? One of the first projects we've done is Internet 0. It lets you build a Web server for $1 that can go into a light switch. It takes the original properties of the Internet—internetworking and the end-to-end principle—and extends them down to the physical device level. It will let you do IP to everything, at essentially the cost of an RFID tag. It's the first step in breaking computation out of the boxes you see today and integrating it with the physical world.

What's another example? We are developing fungible computation—computation as a raw material that can be poured, sprayed or unrolled, that can be applied where you want it in the quantities you need. For example, you have a display and you need a little more screen space, or you have a server and you run out of resources. Today, you can add another display or another server, but that's about the granularity that's possible. So the research is looking at how you can make millimeter- or submillimeter-size [computers] and put them in various form factors, such as paint or wallpaper, and then build programming models so the little devices organize locally and globally. So that display becomes wallpaper you unroll, and if you want more display, you add more wallpaper. If your server needs more resources, you open the top and pour in more server. We are pushing the frontiers of fabrication, process integration, packaging, communications and, most importantly, programming models.

What are some of the things your students have made in MIT's Fab Lab? They have been consistently innovative in things I never would have thought of. One made a Web browser for parrots. One made a dress with sensors and spines to protect her personal space. One made an alarm clock you have to wrestle with to prove you're awake. You can buy at Wal-Mart anything you need; this is technology that you want. It's technology for a market of one person.

Is there any corporate interest in that kind of personalized fabrication? There is a quiet trend inching toward it. Instead of central, mass production, it's on-the-fly rapid prototyping, so things like clothes or shoes or a cell phone case get customized locally for a customer.

But most big companies look at the Fab Lab stuff and say, "It's nice those kids are playing with those cute toys, but we'll do the real stuff." They are repeating the mistakes of the transition from mainframes to PCs, where the mainframe people said PCs were toys. Conventional companies don't recognize the extent to which these aren't just toys but fundamentally threaten their business models.

Where will you go next? Molecular assemblies are 20 years out, and fab labs are one step toward them. Conventional labs use millions of dollars in equipment, but with just $20,000 to $30,000 in equipment, fab labs today let you work at the level of microns and microseconds. We are moving toward nanometers and nanoseconds. Ultimately, we will end up with Star Trek-style molecular assemblies that make anything from scratch.

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